Why Do So Many Teenagers Struggle to Form Friendships?

Young student with short hair sits on bench, looking lonely, backpack nearby“I have no friends,” said a recent high school sophomore during an emotional therapy session. She’s not alone—I hear it daily working with adolescent girls. As adults, we often scoff and wonder how this could be. But the truth is, teenagers today feel isolated and more alone than ever. Even in the age of social media, with constant digital connection, lack of deep friendships is creating a secluded void.

While everyone feels lonely from time to time, the number of teenagers who tell me they feel friendless is unnerving. When I probe deeper and ask why they feel this way, and how it happened, similar patterns emerge across the board.

  • It starts to unravel in middle school, after successfully navigating friendships in elementary school.
  • The unraveling tends to start with a friendship conflict. Sometimes it’s a jealousy situation, sometimes it involves peer pressure or fear, and sometimes it’s a popularity contest.
  • Teens feel shunned by former friends, and they can’t seem to get the relationship back on track.
  • Teens have a hard time making new friends because they are not sure who is trustworthy.
  • Teens feel like social media are a blessing and a curse.
  • Teens feel isolated, vulnerable, and alone.

As adults, we are often quick to think, “Just go make a friend.” Today, it isn’t that easy. There are social media platforms to navigate, reputations to discern, disconnections to hurdle. It can feel overwhelming to start. Whether accurate or not, any perceived challenge can make a teen more likely to not reach out to someone as a friend. For instance, it’s a common perception among teens to view themselves as unlikable. “She doesn’t like me, she never even looks at me in the hallway,” I hear often.

Even in the age of constant virtual connectedness, we live with personal and intimate disconnectedness. Teens can have “friends” on Facebook but often feel left out when others are having fun on Saturday night and they weren’t invited. Classmates may comment on a teen’s Instagram photo but forget to invite them to join a movie night.

Teenage years are hard enough without the extra challenge of feeling friendless.

Social media also provide an inherent friendship killer—competition. That’s what social media are often used for—showing off, looking cool, and stirring envy. Taking a selfie is often work for teens. They may feel the need to look their best from every angle, and it often takes a few tries to get it “right.” When the end result turns out to be a fabulous photo, social media followers may forget that the person in the photo can also have zits, a broken heart, and family conflict.

How can teens learn to have healthy friendships in this competitive, disconnected culture we live in? Here are 10 suggestions you can give your teen:

  1. Some people are popular only because everyone is afraid of them. That is no way to have friends; that’s a dictatorship! Look around at the people who are friendly, but not super popular—that’s where you’re likely to find the people who stay out of drama.
  2. Understand that there can be levels of friends. You can have a class friend, a tennis friend, and a best friend. They are all important to your well-being!
  3. You can’t always find friendship in your phone. Look up and outward. Put your phone away and connect in person. Start with a friendly smile and work up from there to a kind “hello.”
  4. Have an acquaintance whom you like? Take a risk and ask them to do something with you. Go to Starbucks, see a movie, do a project. Even if you are scared, ask. Taking risks and asking often deepens relationships.
  5. Try a new activity. If you are an artist, join Art Club! That is where your kind of people are probably hanging out.
  6. Don’t be so quick to assume that everyone dislikes you. What do they know about you? Do you walk through the halls with your head down and a distressed look on your face? You could be inadvertently sending an inaccurate impression visually. Maybe lighten up a bit, walk to class with a friendly face, and take a chance by smiling at someone. See what happens as an experiment.
  7. Look for evidence. Are you sure that person “hates” you? What are the facts? Feelings are not facts—we need to look for actual evidence to support your feelings. Maybe you’ll find you didn’t have all the facts and misread a situation.
  8. Learn social skills. Find safe topics that everyone likes to talk about such as food, animals, weather, television shows, and holidays. Ask questions, don’t give one-word answers, and be polite. Learn the art of interviewing – it’s essential to get to know someone!
  9. Be vulnerable. Tell someone something about yourself. Start with a small detail that you don’t care if people know and grow it from there.
  10. Assume people are good and want to have a friend. Almost everyone wants to be connected.

Teenage years are hard enough without the extra challenge of feeling friendless. Understanding the impact of social media, lack of personal togetherness, and the absence of trust can help adults guide teenagers through the vulnerable emotions of friendship making.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Angela Avery, MA, LPC, NCC, therapist in Clarkston, Michigan

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Mara Q

    Mara Q

    January 22nd, 2018 at 3:03 PM

    Also because teens today are vastly overworked. School, SAT practice, homework, sleep. Selfie jealousy is real, but social media’s the reason kids get any socialization at all during weekdays.

  • Camille

    Camille

    January 26th, 2018 at 3:54 PM

    supporting my daughter (15) through her social friend drama has been one of the most if not the most stressful thing I’ve had to do as a mom I even got therapy for it. Some good tips here for parents glad we are talking about this issue. Friendships are a big deal to teenagers and can lead to some serious problems if gone wrong….

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